Imaginary Games – Book Review
You were absolutely correct: Deliverance for the 3DS does not exist. People seemed upset by that—only natural, I suppose…nobody likes falseness forced upon them. And yet, might there have been some good in it? Consider this: the people who seemed most offended by Deliverance 3D’s—should we say—questionable ontological presence were the same people who, before the title was deemed fake, seemed most excited that such a game could exist at all. It was for this very reason that I had refused to present the review as “parody” in the first place: I wanted people to perceive “fiction” as “truth,” just for a moment, so that in the latter’s sudden shuddering away they might be all the more determined to make such things exist in the future.
Coincidentally, this week I’ve been scheduled to write a review of Imaginary Games, the new book from game designer Chris Bateman, due out November 25th. (And yes, it actually exists this time.) I say “coincidentally” because it is this very subject—the gameable nature of reality—that Bateman’s newest work seems most interested in exploring: “Fiction is more than the foundation of art and games,” he writes, “…it is essential to maintaining our moral notions [and] deeply connected with our experience of reality.” Bateman, who is perhaps best known for the 1999 game Discworld Noir, is no stranger to writing deeply and thoughtfully about games. But while his previous three books focused on the objective here’s-some-tactics-to-employ-when-developing-games, with Imaginary Games Chris has opted to tackle the Beast Of Game Design from the outside-in—by revealing the gameness of the actual, the game beyond games.
How effective is Bateman’s approach? Well, I guess that just depends on what kind of person you are. Bateman divides the world into two types of people, based almost exclusively around one’s individual preference for either concrete or abstract language. The first group, those Bateman would refer to as concrete-minded, which is to mean those whose imaginations typically require concrete, real-world detail, will probably pass on this book. They shouldn’t, but they will. Why? Because Imaginary Games isn’t 100 Tips To Making Badass Games. Bateman’s written the closest he’ll ever get to that kind of book several times over already. No, this book is for that second group of people, the abstract-minded—who Bateman describes as being prototypically D&D fans—and as one of them I can honestly say that you’ll find the ideas contained within Imaginary Games both intriguing and revelatory.
According to Bateman, our common perceptions of “reality” and “fiction” can be grounded in another, often-overlooked facet of human experience: make-believe. Central to this task is Kendall Walton’s Make-Believe Theory of Representation, which was conceived of to help understand children at play on a philosophical level, and which Bateman masterfully adapts to videogames. In doing so, he finds himself with an array of fresh and interesting ways to approach the subject of videogames, with results that will appeal to abstract- and concrete-minds alike. And even in those moments when Bateman’s focus shifts towards something “bigger” than videogames, his outside-in methodology assures us that, sooner or later, he will return to them.
Oh but for the hell of it let’s give you big panorama…Divided into seven parts, Imaginary Games’ gradual progression away from itself has a subtle enough curve to please most everyone: Games sets the stage, giving newcomer’s that broad, sweeping view of game philosophy, before dropping them off into the biology and art of play; Imagination and Props explore the similarities between videogames and make-believe, the former concentrating on the nuts and bolts, and the latter diving headfirst into the concepts of props and dolls—two terms that’s distinction serves as one of the highlights of the book; Fictional Worlds sees the videogame focus begin to slip to the back of Bateman’s mind, as he begins to collapse our perceptions of the gameworld and the actual world, in favor of applying the “gameness” of both to other subjects; Participation examines the interrelationship of functional emotions and representational emotions in games as well as other mediums, further twining the gameworld in the actual, and vice versa; Ethics takes this one step further to discuss how the “tension between the values of the player-subject and the values of the player outside of the game create a unique opportunity for ethical reflection,” and links the primary component of the moral perspective to stories–which videogames fundamentally are.
But it is in Virtual Worlds that Bateman’s real purpose shines through unfettered: By framing art, experience, and videogames in terms of kayfabe (a professional wrestling term for portraying events as “real”) Bateman “reveals” the various facets of our lives that are determined by make-believe…History, math, science. Though the terminology of make-believe remains intact, readers will find that the word “videogame” has vanished entirely…In its place we find that all has become a game–truth, fiction, video, experience. If you can name it, it’s a game.
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A word of caution: Bateman isn’t saying, “Reality is fake.” Rather, by exposing the “gameness” of the world outside of videogames, Bateman asks that we re-conceptualize the world and games alike; to see that game development isn’t just the translation of reality, but the translation of a translation…and so on, and so forth. And though Imaginary Game’s purpose is ultimately far greater than videogames, the sting of realization should not be above those only interested in them. There is no doubt in my mind that by collapsing the philosophy of the “dire” inward, art will benefit. And by finding games in the real world and the real world in games, Bateman does just that.
—based on an advanced copy of Imaginary Games, praise be to Zero Books and Chris Bateman.